Belfast Telegraph

Commission can make a real difference to our lives

A Bill of Rights is only a part of work to make society fairer, says Monica McWilliams

The Human Rights Commission read with interest an article written by Owen Polley (November 16, 2010) on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The Bill of Rights was a key commitment of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 and recognised as such by St Andrews. It is good to note that Mr Polley continues therefore to view the Bill as "a fantastic opportunity to deliver legislation which could make a difference to Northern Ireland".

Having human rights guaranteed and gathered together in one document, where everyone can see them, is crucial. While political agreements in Northern Ireland have determined how our elected politicians behave towards one other, they did not explain how the government ought to behave towards us, the people.

But this is precisely what a Bill of Rights will do. It is an agreement between the people and their government listing the protections and freedoms everyone is entitled to have. It will set out how the government and public authorities should treat people in a new Northern Ireland, helping us deal with the legacy of conflict and building peace for the future by ensuring that everyone is treated fairly and guaranteeing protections that reflect the particular circumstances of our society.

Since the Hillsborough Declaration in 2003, the UK government has been tasked "to bring forward" the necessary legislation at Westminster. A forum, in 2008, on which all of our local political parties sat, recommended unanimously that a Bill of Rights "is needed to provide strong legal protection for human rights for all the people of Northern Ireland; should be in accordance with universal human rights standards, reflecting the particular circumstances ... must address the needs of the poorest and most marginalised ... should be aspirational and look to the future".

Despite this, there continues to be political disagreement on the content of a Bill of Rights; little surprise as legislation of such constitutional importance ought to be the focus of serious discussion. The continuing public interest further proves that this important part of the peace process needs to be finally resolved.

The Human Rights Commission has recommended to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what rights ought to be included in a Bill of Rights and we will continue to advise government on this point.

Although Mr Polley's article referred to the Bill of Rights, it is important to note that this forms only one part of the Commission's work. We are currently investigating the rights of the elderly in nursing care homes and the findings will be presented next year. The Commission also continues to support legal cases on issues in which people's human rights have been denied.

Similarly, significant impacts have been made on government policy. For example, the Commission's challenge to the 'earned citizenship' immigration policy has resulted in the policy being withdrawn. Our recent advice on legislation to replace the Parades Commission raised concerns that demonstrations like open-air church services would be unnecessarily included. As a result, the requirement for other assemblies to give notice was removed.

The Commission has a range of important responsibilities to protect and promote human rights which we continue to deliver. And like other public bodies, we are reviewing our organisation to ensure it is effective and efficient. In these tough economic times, we will continue to provide a strong and robust service defending the rights of people in Northern Ireland.

Professor Monica McWilliams is the Chief Commissioner, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission


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